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Radiation Skincare Reinvented

A lesson in self care, plus the ABCs of breast massage from the founders of Complex Creatures.

Paige Herman-Axel has more than two decades of experience writing about beauty, skincare and wellness. A former editor for a variety of publications, Paige is now a freelance writer and consultant for skincare companies big and small, dermatologists and plastic surgeons, as well as a regular contributor to various websites. In the rare time spent away from her computer, Paige can be found on a tennis court, shuttling her 13-year-old son to and from basketball practice, or playing fetch with her Havanese, Nugget.

We look after our skin, hair and overall wellness, so why doesn’t breast care get the same level of attention? Complex Creatures is on a mission to change that. Borne from a breast-cancer thriver’s journey—and her sister’s subsequent discovery that she was high-risk—this survivor-led brand strives to elevate the status of breast care in our regular self-care routines from the onset of puberty through menopause.

Back in 2016, Complex Creatures co-founder Tara Elmore’s husband felt a lump in her breast, and her initial reaction was, “Let me get my period.” As a 37-year-old with no family history, she had never had a mammogram and her doctor suggested she get it checked out. An ultrasound led to a biopsy that revealed Tara had stage-two, triple-positive breast cancer and her almost two-year rollercoaster ride of chemotherapy, lumpectomy, Herceptin and radiation was swiftly underway. (For the record, Tara celebrated five years of being healthy this past June.)

Just thinking about the concept of radiation treatment can be scary—and the idea of willingly walking into a Chernobyl-esque situation every day for several weeks can be even scarier. As part of Tara’s pre-radiation prep, she was prescribed a cream for any post-treatment skin side effects, but something about it didn’t sit right with her. “I didn’t recognize any of the chemicals in the ingredient list and I noticed there was aluminum in it,” she recalls. 

Never one to turn down potentially life-saving Western medical treatment—but one to explore other, more holistic treatment options—Tara found an elder breast-cancer survivor who was known for mastectomy massage, and a “clean” skin balm with only a handful of natural ingredients for use during radiation. “I applied it right after each treatment and at bedtime from start to finish, and my doctors couldn’t believe how well my skin held up. The area looked like I had a tan, similar to how my arm would look in the summer, but there was no long-term damage or anything.”

When Tara wanted more of this cream for other people she knew who were going through radiation, she had a hard time getting her hands on it. She recounts, “I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘How is there literally nothing on the market to support radiation-treated skin besides a chemical-laden cream or Aquaphor?’ These were the only readily available options.”

Tara’s older sister, Lisa Lundy, instantly became high-risk as soon as her sibling received her diagnosis. “I didn’t know much about risk factors and statistics. And I’d never given much thought to breast health before Tara’s diagnosis. I’d had one mammogram prior to that and it was normal,” she recalls. 

Lisa immediately began researching alternative ways to keep her breasts healthy. (She was also frustrated after years of being told her premenstrual breast tenderness and dense breasts and fibroadenoma were “normal.”) “My research led me to herbalists and non-traditional practitioners, where I learned about breast massage and lymphatic health. In addition to daily dry-brushing and massage, I started making sure I was getting enough of the herbs and vitamins that support immunity, liver function, and hormone balance—all of which support breast health.”

Lisa recounts, “I couldn’t find a breast oil that I liked and one that had the mix of botanicals and oils I wanted so I started experimenting with making my own. Our Deep Reservoir Breast Oil started in my kitchen.” As she continued to test and tweak her hand-crafted formula, she found that it significantly helped with her breast-related PMS and perimenopause symptoms as well.

As Lisa was blending up skin treatments in her kitchen, Tara was in detox mode after completing her radiation treatments. Beyond a healthy diet and exercise, she started seeing an acupuncturist weekly, turned to various types of massage and assembled an alternative team of doctors. Tara shares, “I felt like Western medicine was fantastic for treating cancer, but no one really had any guidance for me about what to do after, other than get your mammogram and take these aromatase inhibitors.” 

Tara dove into functional integrative medicine, and started working with Dr. Zach Bush at the M*Clinic in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Dr. Bush helped me detox, get my vitamin and hydration levels in check and restore all of the true pillars of health,” Tara explains. She also started working with an herbalist named Jude Christian there, and she now consults on Complex Creatures’ formulas.

“We had always kicked around different business ideas, and our totally different breast-health realities made us question why no one was talking about ongoing breast health, and why breast health is limited to an annual mammogram,” Tara shares. She and Lisa also believe that breast health efforts should be a priority well before age 40 (the FDA-recommended age for a baseline mammogram in those with no family history). Remember, breasts make their appearance at the onset of puberty, and 71% of breast cancer cases in women under the age of 50 are detected by women (and potentially their intimate partners) themselves.

Once we had the realization about how underserved the breast cancer community was and how much attention all breasts needed, the need for a breast wellness company emerged,” Lisa shares. Just before the pandemic, the sisters began creating and perfecting Complex Creatures’ oil and balm formulas. Although these two products were initially designed to address different breast-health needs, customer testimonials have revealed an overlap between the two.

The ultra-hydrating High Vibe Healing Balm was developed specifically for delicate skin, including areas compromised by radiation or recovering from surgery. Tara explains, “It took 18 months to get the formula just right, and in addition to creating a barrier that protects the skin, it nourishes on a cellular level to promote regeneration.” Tara used the balm on her port scar and today it’s practically gone. Lisa uses the balm all over her body, including her C-section scar, and admits she has jars throughout the house because her kids love it, too.

Complex Creatures’ Deep Reservoir Breast Oil was based on Lisa’s homemade formula, and has far-reaching benefits for both post-surgical and healthy breasts. According to Tara, “At first we designed the oil for daily massage and ongoing skin maintenance, but we’ve come to learn that post-mastectomy patients are loving the oil for helping their skin adapt to volume changes beneath the surface. We’ve received so much positive feedback from women at the expander stage of their reconstruction.”

Neither of Complex Creatures’ formulas contain artificial fragrance or endocrine disruptors, and the balm’s “scent” can be attributed to chamomile, which is very mild and mellow. Tara explains, “The oil has a really potent blend of essential oils like frankincense, cedarwood and pink peppercorn that we know are beneficial for breast health, which contributes to a stronger scent.” 

Complex Creatures believes whole-heartedly in the power of breast massage, which also promotes regular self-exams. Whether performed daily (or when you have the time), at the very least put a reminder in your calendar for the first day of every month as a “check-in” with your breasts.

According to Tara, “Many of us wear constrictive sports bras daily, which inhibits the flow of fluids within the chest, breasts and armpits. Massage provides a ‘pump’ that helps express toxins that may accumulate in the breasts and surrounding lymph nodes through physical movement, which promotes healthy cell growth. The breasts themselves are also more susceptible to an accumulation of toxins due to their high fat content. Internally and externally, the breasts absorb a lot of what we put on and in them.” 

Think of breast massage as a form of self-care that can also help detect any changes early – and remember, even just some extra attention is better than none. 

Step 1: Apply a dropperful of breast oil.

Step 2: Massage gently in a circular motion from the nipple outward.

Step 3: Spend time on trouble or sore spots.

Step 4: After massaging, place your hand under your armpit and pump upwards to drain lymph and flush toxins.

(If you’re more of a visual learner, you can check out this breast massage tutorial.)

*If you’re in active treatment or have had breast cancer, always get the go-ahead from your doctors to ensure safe massage.

One of Tara’s main takeaways from her breast-cancer journey: “My husband knew what my breasts felt like better than I did.” This is further proof about the importance of monthly self-exams in order to catch changes early. “I always think about how the breasts protect our hearts, and the connection between breast health and heart health. Breast cancer and heart disease are the top-two medical threats facing women, and if you have breasts—or have had breasts—Complex Creatures was created with you in mind.”

For more tips on how to maintain your skin during radiation, visit our Stage Advice article, Five Tips To Help Maintain Your Skin During Radiation.
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“I always think about how the breasts protect our hearts, and the connection between breast health and heart health. Breast cancer and heart disease are the top-two medical threats facing women, and if you have breasts—or have had breasts—Complex Creatures was created with you in mind.”

- Tara Elmore

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